National Marian Anderson Museum To Open New Exhibit This Weekend

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The National Marian Anderson Museum in South Philadelphia is unveiling an exhibit showcasing newly curated dresses and photos on Saturday.

The showcase is a labor of love from two women who love Anderson’s legacy.

Portrait of Marian Anderson done by Philadelphia painter George Amonatti. (credit: Cherri Gregg/KYW)

Portrait of Marian Anderson done by Philadelphia painter George Amonatti. (credit: Cherri Gregg/KYW)

Marian Anderson is one of the celebrated singers of the 20th century. She blazed the trail for Black artists in the 1920s, 30s and 40s by becoming the first African American to perform at the White House and at the New York Metropolitan Opera. She is most known for her soul stirring performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial Easter Sunday 1939 before 75,000 people as millions listened live as it broadcast on the radio.

“I was always in awe of her graciousness — she was so humble, she never acted like ‘I’m Marian Anderson,'” says Blanche Burton-Lyles, founder of the Marian Anderson Historical Society. She was Anderson’s protegee and grew up with the song bird. Lyles, an accomplished pianist, became the first Black woman to attend the Curtis Institute thanks to Anderson’s recommendation.

Pirtle and Burton-Lyles performing. (credit: Cherri Gregg/KYW)

Pirtle and Burton-Lyles performing. (credit: Cherri Gregg/KYW)

“She lived such an exceptional life,” says Burton-Lyles, “people admired her so…but no one admired her more than I did.”

When Anderson died Burton-Lyles purchased her mentor’s Martin Street home in 1995 and transformed it into a museum dedicated to her legacy.

“Nothing has changed, I mean it has the same railing, the same kitchen and the same floors from 1924,” she says.

But it has been a struggle and a labor of love. Thankfully, Burton-Lyles has a mentee, Jillian Patricia Pirtle whom she met in 1995 while in high school. Pirtle went on to become an Anderson scholar and historian and is now the CEO of the National Marian Anderson Museum.

“Not many people know about Marian her life and legacy and all that she did,” says Pirtle, who can rattle off Anderson’s history from memory. She rolls up her sleeves, dedicating her own funds to repairing the home and volunteering her time to run the museum.

Anderson's wedding gown. (credit: Cherri Gregg/KYW)

Anderson’s wedding gown. (credit: Cherri Gregg/KYW)

“It’s full of great treasures,” she says, “but so many people take this history for granted and people need to know.”

To celebrate Anderson’s 119th birthday Saturday the museum is opening an exhibit of her gowns, music, vast photo collection and other items, including a Marian Anderson comic book. There will also be food and live performances.

The museum will be open from 10am until 5pm on Saturday. For details and location: http://marianandersonhistoricalsociety.weebly.com/

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